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Does Libby Schaaf Have the Inside Track on the Oakland Mayor's Race?

Randy Shaw | October 20, 2014 | Story Politics

Reprinted with permission from

It’s two weeks before Election Day, and the Oakland mayor’s race could again be decided by the second-choice votes of Rebecca Kaplan and Jean Quan. In 2010, Quan used Kaplan’s second-choice votes to leapfrog over Don Perata, who had the most first-place votes. In 2014, Kaplan seems likely to get the most first-place votes, but needs Quan’s second-choice votes to hold off Libby Schaaf’s increasing momentum.

Until recently, Kaplan has been far ahead in all of the reputable polls I have seen. But these polls also showed an unusually high percentage of undecided voters, giving a chance to both Quan and Schaaf.

But Quan should not get her hopes up: Her negatives are simply too high, with 29% of voters unwilling to vote for her under any circumstances. When I talk to Oakland voters, I try to elicit positive comments about Quan by noting the city’s economic growth, improved reputation, and sharply reduced homicide rate on her watch. But few give Quan credit for Oakland’s progress. To the contrary, most people I speak to believe the mayor is holding the city back.

It’s rare for an incumbent to get as little credit for positive developments in their city during her tenure. If anyone knows of another urban mayor who lost re-election despite a booming local economy, let me know. By way of comparison, only two San Francisco mayors have lost re-election in the past nearly 50 years and both—Art Agnos in 1991 and Frank Jordan in 1995—presided over a weak local economy.

Quan won’t win, but her second-choice votes will decide Oakland’s next mayor. Quan and Kaplan supporters backed the other in 2010, and recent polls showing that trend continuing. As recently reported by the East Bay Express, which is far and away providing the best coverage of the Oakland mayor’s race, “Kaplan picks up 18 percent of Quan voters, while Schaaf only gets 10 percent.” It’s hard to see Schaaf winning without gaining more of Quan’s second choice votes.

Schaaf’s Momentum

I’d waited so long for Schaaf to make a move in this race that I had almost thought it wasn’t coming. But the combination of the Jerry Brown endorsement and her surprising pick by the East Bay Express has given her momentum with two weeks to go. Brown’s endorsement helps, but his choices in the last two Oakland mayor’s races both lost (de la Fuente and Perata). The East Bay Express endorsement is far more important.

It certified Schaaf as a hard-working and courageous progressive, while disparaging Kaplan by not even making her its second choice. The chief media source on the mayor’s race for young Oakland progressives said it was “concerned” about Kaplan’s work ethic and “her tendency to avoid taking tough stances on issues, and about whether she’s up for the hard job of being mayor of Oakland.” That’s pretty harsh. And it's an observation that's likely to influence undecided Oakland progressives. And you can be sure that these voters will receive the Express’s endorsement comments in Schaaf mailers prior to Election Day.

The Express made Dan Siegel its co-third choice (with Kaplan), but Siegel deserves credit for moving the entire Oakland mayor’s race to the left. His campaign boosted Lift Up Oakland’s minimum wage campaign, and his progressive agenda framed a contest whose business-backed candidates have gone nowhere.

Can Kaplan Hold Lead?

For all the talk of Schaaf momentum, the most recent poll has Rebecca Kaplan ahead 59-41 when all of the ranked-choice votes are counted. Yes, the race still has many undecided voters. And the poll was in the field prior to the influential Express endorsement of Schaaf, and before some voters learned of her backing by Governor Brown.

Don Perata was supposed to be a sure thing in 2010, until Quan won. So with Schaaf’s momentum becoming the news angle in the race, Kaplan’s victory is far from assured. But unlike Perata, Kaplan has a demonstrated history of winning Oakland elections. And she has consistently done so by larger margins than expected. I’ve long heard complaints about her unwillingness to take tough stands on issues, but if that were a problem she wouldn’t have been so far ahead in the most recent poll.

For Schaaf to overtake Kaplan, she has to win the greater loyalty of Quan voters and increase her share of first-place votes from those supporting candidates with no chance to win. Kaplan, meanwhile, needs to solidify her support by showing that she is clearly “up” for the tough job of mayor.

Oakland finally has a mayoral election that people are talking about. It took a while, but Oakland’s quiet mayor’s race is heating up.

Randy Shaw is the Editor-in-Chief of BeyondChron.

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